The day in the spring of 1989 upon which photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died must have been the happiest in history for the then somewhat unfledged subgenre of art historians trafficking in pure critical theory. Mapplethorpe, whose reputation for sexually explicit and socially confrontational subjects superseded his equal masterful technical skills, was a gay man at the intersection of New York City’s artistic demimonde and increasingly visible homosexual subculture. As extra added academic bonuses, Mapplethorpe suffered from AIDS-related complications, showed and published images of nude black men, and showed promise as an intellectual growth industry when a posthumous retrospective show of his work essentially eviscerated the National Endowment for the Arts.


The fact of Mapplethorpe’s death created the ideal thesis-ready mute subject and made it unnecessary, for certain academics, ever to actually look at photographs again. Already in play was photography’s uneasy existence as the most democratic, and therefore least appealing to critical theorists, of the ostensible fine arts. Though writing about the socio-political properties of the reproducible image has increased greatly over the past two decades there actually has been a contingent of zealous over-analyzers since the invention of the Daguerreotype. Not having Mapplethorpian identity issues to mull over caused this earlier group to be left with the task of devoting much thought to the deliberate casualness of the still filmed image as well as to its ability to be replicated, altered, and interpreted. Now, however, the fermentation of photography, psychoanalysis, linguiphilia, and gender and identity politics has produced a catalogue of thought on these twined subject so overwhelming and abstruse no attempt will be made to distill its entire content here. Instead, the work of three prominent photography scholars, Susan Sontag, Simon Watney, and Rosalind Krauss, will be addressed.

In fact, just as Instamatics were becoming common middle class household items, post-World War II philosophers, inspired by, among other things, Jungian psychoanalytical theories and the solidifying canons of anthropology and sociology, had disinterred the study of semiotics. Semiotics, encompassing not just verbal and written language but virtually form of stimuli or sensory input categorizable as a sign, naturally was drawn to the medium of photography.?Yet all academic writing about photography at least tangentially, if illogically, harkens back to the mechanical (and hence skill-free and shapeshifting) nature of the medium. This essay briefly examines these commonalities and differences between several oft-referred-to theorists, critics and art historians in their varying perspectives and analysis of image content reading, reproduction, and contextualization of some aspects of photography in the modern age.


British academic, AIDS awareness and gay activist, cultural theorist, media analyst, and art historian Simon Watney (Evans, Jessica and Hall, Stuart, editors, Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2005) xiv.)) dates the formal recognition of this drift toward extensive analysis of the social context of visual media to the early 1970s and even gives the trend a name “the Cultural Studies Movement – in his essay titled On the Institutions of Photography, Watney notes that the practice of debating the ramifications of the easily replicated image had begun long before in service to the agenda of establishing the primacy of painting ((Simon Watney, On the Institutions of Photography, from Evans, Jessica and Hall, Stuart, editors, Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2005) 141.)): Art history has looked beyond the Fine Art tradition in order to problematizes the category of ‘art’ itself, and to examine that privileging of oil painting over all other techniques of visual signification which conventional Art History institutionalizes and takes for granted in the name of ‘connoisseurship’.?To ground his observations in the appropriate intellectual milieu, Watney quickly conjures the familiar vocabulary of power imbalances and semiotics, noting resistance in some quarters of the academic art history community when strain inevitably arises because of the way in which the British CSM originally hitched the effectively indigenous methods of Marxism to the continental project of semiology [requiring] more explanation than that offered by the conventional wisdom which insists that class is the central and all-determining factor I the formation of all forms of political and cultural consciousness ((Watney, 143)). ?Watney uses words such as   urgent  and   crucial  to underscore the immediate necessity of comprehending photography’s divisive nature ((Watney, 145)).   The institutions of production and reception in such a way that the former is not over privileged in the misleading name of  ˜the real’ as if ideological and psychological factors which bear down relentlessly on the uses of photography were somehow less substantial or concrete, and thus of secondary importance, if considered at all,  Watney says ((Watney, 148)).?The essay identifies two critical   problems  created by the existence of photography ((Watney, 149)). Firstly, it is caught inexorably in the grip of descriptive categories of production  “ documentary, photojournalism, and so on  “ which interrupt our understanding of the semiotic process without which we could never produce images at all, or read them.  Secondly, the  ‘social’ emerges as a force working though photographers or subject-matter into photographs. ?Watney maintains that the economic and educational level of the viewer creates a framework for this individual audience for defining what is aesthetically pleasing and respectful of social covenants in deriving acceptable standards for photography ((Watney, 151.).?Yet Watney alleges that merely being subjected to, or even bombarded by, constant streams of incoming visual data does not create the de facto role of active viewership.?Watney concludes the essay with a conclusion phrased as a question, that photographers are as individualistic as painters or sculptors, but that because of the ubiquity of the photographic image, such data does not receive a scathing critical analysis ((Watney, 159.)):   How do different branches of photography narrate different fantasies, wish-fulfillments, idealized identities and so on in such a way that conflicts between them rarely emerge into ordinary consciousness? ?Columbia University professor Rosalind Krauss ((Internet Resource: The Evans and Hall citation on Professor Krauss is out-of-date.)) whose writings on 20th Century art, photography, and sculpture have been widely published, addresses this issue of conflict identification obliquely by focusing an essay on two photographers whose work arguably was created in the prehistory of art world critical theory and who may have labored, like the painter Henri Rousseau, outside of any contemporaneous artistic school or leitmotif had they been wholly aware of the existence of such.?In   Photography’s Discursive Spaces  Krauss compares the original print of Timothy O’Sullivan’s photograph Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, taken in 1868, with lithographic runs of the same photo. Krauss maintains the lithography technique too finely renders the details that are left to abstraction in the original image ((Rosalind Krauss,   Photography’s Discursive Spaces,  from Evans, Jessica and Hall, Stuart, editors, Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2005) 193.)), though common reproductions of both images  “ i.e. textbook and Internet copies  “ are barely distinguishable from each other.?Krauss notes that Tufa Domes and some of O’Sullivan’s other landscapes have gained present-day cache as their possibly unintended overexposure has created inadvertently pleasing models of abstraction and indeterminate depth of field. She acknowledges that while O’Sullivan operated as a professional with a clear ideal of his own, it is likely he lacked the precognition to envision his work’s future potential for analysis:  But did O’Sullivan in his own day, the 1860s and 1870s, construct his work for the aesthetic discourse and the space of exhibition? Or did he create it for the scientific/topographical discourse that it more or less efficiently serves? Is the interpretation of O’Sullivan’s work as a representation of aesthetic values  “ flatness, graphic design, ambiguity, and, behind these, certain intentions toward aesthetic signification, sublimity, transcendence  “ not a retrospective construction designed to secure it as Art? And is the projection not illegitimate, the composition of a false history ((Krauss, 195._))? ?Krauss does not belabor the point that the O’Sullivan photo well illustrates the dynamic of questions about the real  “ is it the actual geological outcropping or the photograph?  “ and the act of signification through which Tufa Domes surely transcends its original intent, even if O’Sullivan did have ambitions toward the gallery. Instead Krauss alights on the technological process by which the image was viewed in situ, as it were, by the masses, seemingly imbuing stereography with mythic properties.? From this physio-optical traversal of the stereo field derives another difference between it and pictorial space,  Krauss intones ((Krauss, 198. )).  This difference concerns the dimension of time. ?What Krauss is actually referring, to, though, is the amount of time a viewer would have spent regarding Tufa Domes through the stereographic apparatus, citing an essay by polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes which lovingly details every nuance of the image as if experienced in a three-dimensional exploration.?Though Krauss compares the sensation of viewing a stereoscope to that of going to the movies ((Krauss, 198.), she fails to take into consideration the communal experience of cinema, nor cinema’s most obvious qualities, those of the true passage of time and display of moving images.?Krauss does pay due homage, however, to early theorist Walter Benjamin ((Walter Benjamin,   The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,  from Evans, Jessica and Hall, Stuart, editors, Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2005) 74.)) by duly noting that ease of mechanical promulgation through facile printing made stereography quite popular and accessible in the middle decades of the 1800s.?Turning to the notion of the identity of the artist, or, the artist as self-conscious and intentional image auteur, Krauss points out that O’Sullivan (as well as other landscape photographers documenting the geography of the American West) consistently referred to his photographs as   views  rather than   landscapes,  implying an active and calculated role in framing and presenting these vast expanses ((Krauss, 199.)). O’Sullivan’s apparent-self awareness and the intentionality and interiority of photographers in general leads to the review of another individual, Eugene Atget.?Atget, like O’Sullivan, had a specialized interest in photography, which also pertained to geography, though on a more intimate scale, confining his parameters to the environs of Paris, France, while being incredibly prolific in generating a body of work. (Can we imagine an oeuvre consisting of ten thousand works?,  asks Krauss of Atget, the latter having archived his abundant images using an elaborately simply binary sort of code, which indicated his further delusions of being a real artist.)?Krauss compares the perception of photographers’   careers  with those of producers of bodies of work ((Krauss, 219.)):   What do the span and nature of these engagements with the medium mean for the concept of career? Can we study these  ˜careers’ with the same methodological presuppositions, the same assumptions of personal style and its continuity, that we bring to the careers of other sorts of artists? ?By dwelling on photographers who worked somewhat outside the range, in both time and style, of more contention-generating photographers such as Mapplethorpe, Krauss diminuates the fallout of political outrage while maintaining that critical theories dependent upon the cult of originality remain invalid. Her essay is accomplished with only two references to the appearance of photographs themselves.?The recently deceased Susan Sontag was a contemporary of Mapplethorpe’s who, though a decade older than the photographer, shared some background sensibilities and a city with him ((Internet Resource, The Evans and Hall citation on Miss Sontag is out-of-date.)).?Sontag’s far-reaching essay   The Image World,  which appeared originally in the essayist-novelist’s landmark 1977 book On Photography predates Mapplethorpe’s controversial oeuvre (and that of Sarah Pickering, Andres Serrano, Erwin Olaf, et. al.). In this brief but dense piece, Sontag anticipates and explains the escalation of shock value and sensation as it relates to mass culture and the ease of photographic reproducibility ((Susan Sontag,   The Image World,  from Evans, Jessica and Hall, Stuart, editors, Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2005) 93. )).   The attempts by photographers to bolster up a sense of reality contribute to the depletion. Our oppressive sense of the transience of everything is more acute since cameras give us the means to fix the fleeting moment. We consume images at an ever faster rate and  ¦ images consume reality,  Sontag observes. Yet Sontag faults socialist forms of government for spontaneous consumerism frenzies as much as she does capitalism and democracy ((Sontag, 92)).?Sontag tags several of the touchstones of critical theory, citing Plato and Proust along with Balzac and J.G. Ballard as reference points20. Some of these features include the subject of posing (   ¦one is supposed to pretend not to notice when one is being photographed by a stranger in a public place so long as the photographer stays at a discreet distance ¦ ((21)) ); the concepts of the real versus reality (  It is not reality that photographs make immediately accessible, it is images ((Sontag, 93)). ); depersonalization (  A society which makes it normative to aspire never to experience privation, failure, misery, pain, dread disease, and in which death itself is regarded not as natural and inevitable but as a cruel unmerited disaster , creates a tremendous curiosity about these events  “ a curiosity that is party satisfied by picture-taking ((Sontag, 86)). ); and the avariciousness wrought by modern life augmented by robotic replications (  Photography is acquisition in several forms  ¦ through image-making and image-duplicating machines, we can acquire something as information rather than experience ((Sontag, 89)). ?Like Krauss and Watney, Sontag is greatly unconcerned with what might quaintly be called the artistic merit of this or that photographer, and she shares with these later, post-Mapplethorpe writers the insistent belief that since visual culture via photography is so widely consumed standards for assessing this insurgent, upstart art form must be brought to bear.